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Could 'lunch shaming' return to Lancaster County? Revised school code could allow it, critics say

Hempfield Milk (copy)

Chocolate milk is on the lunch tray of a student at Hempfield High School Thursday September 6, 2018.

Pennsylvania has potentially invited “lunch shaming” back into schools, critics say.

A provision in the school code passed with the state budget last week allows schools to serve students alternative meals if they have an unpaid balance of $50 or more.

Lawmakers agreed to the rule despite banning “lunch shaming” — or calling attention to students whose families don’t keep up with meal purchases by serving them an alternative meal or denying them food altogether — in 2017.

While the new law states serving some students a different meal isn’t considered stigmatizing, many Lancaster County school officials expressed disagreement.

“It is difficult for me to believe how establishing this threshold would not be considered stigmatizing,” Hempfield Superintendent Mike Bromirski said.

Prior to the 2017 law change, Hempfield students who had negative balances were served a cheese sandwich and fruit juice. Although he appreciates what lawmakers are trying to accomplish by reducing students’ outstanding meal debt, Bromirski said he doesn’t expect Hempfield to return to that practice.

Other Lancaster County schools also offered alternative meals in the past. At Ephrata Area elementary schools, for example, children who didn’t have money for lunch could eat only a salad.

Six school districts — Lampeter-Strasburg, Manheim Central, Manheim Township, Octorara Area, Penn Manor and Warwick — did not have such policies.

Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter said he expects that to continue.

“We all felt that we don’t want to serve students cheese sandwiches, so we do give them an option,” he said. “We haven’t talked to the board about it yet, but I don’t see our recommendation being any different.”

Other districts, such as Pequea Valley, have yet to make a decision about serving alternative meals.

“We will discuss with the Admin Team and decide what our guidelines will be,” Gavin Scalyer, Pequea Valley’s director of support services, said in an email. “My personal impression is that it will help reinforce families paying their meal debt.”

LNP in June reported that meal debt has skyrocketed since state lawmakers passed the “lunch shaming” bill in 2017. Districts were left with $118,501 in meal debt following the most recent school year, compared to $16,180 after the 2016-17 school year.

Other notable changes in the school code include forming a commission to study special education funding; extending the moratorium for the commonwealth’s reimbursement program for school districts with construction projects through 2019-20; and changing the compulsory school age from 8 to 17 years old to 6 to 18 years old.